Now we’re going to try it.
That’s what more and more horse owners think.
”It” being ProPrio Training, to get a stronger and more balanced horse. It’s a form of neuromuscular training, which I am crazy about, both as a horse owner and a veterinarian.
I have specialized in neuromuscular training and developed a simple and very effective training method, which I show to all the owners of the horses I treat. It’s the training method I call ProPrio Training, and I have also written a book for you about it.
Maybe it seems like too much to take on.
And how do you go about starting the right way?
I get many questions from readers and clients about how to start up. And I’m happy about that. Because how you start can determine if you have success with ProPrio Training. That’s why I’ve written this blog, where I’ll show you how to start up at the proper pace, step by step, using videos.
At the time of writing this, I’m starting up a new horse, Axton, with ProPrio Training, and I’ll show you how in the videos further down.
ProPrio Training is a training method where we use equipment such as soft poles and mattresses, so I’ll start by explaining a bit about that. Because you can easily start without making major investments.
To begin with, you can get two regular, used foam mattresses (maybe you can find some at a thrift shop or something). One you can cut up into four long pieces, which will give you four soft poles and one whole mattress. Then you are ready to desensitize your horse to the ProPrio equipment (I’ll cover that further down).
The “real” ProPrio equipment has a thick, strong foam inside, that readily returns to its original shape after the horse steps on it, and it’s covered in a heavy-duty plastic cover that makes it extremely durable and waterproof so it can be kept outdoors without being damaged.
You may think that the many kinds of poles, mattresses, pools, jumps, etc. that I use may seem a bit much, but the variety of the equipment gives so many training opportunities and tools to activate all the muscle groups in the horse.
The simple starting kit looks like this:
One mattress and four soft poles, and then you’re set to start. If you can begin with the long (3 meters) poles, that’s best, but the short ones will also do just fine. That means, if you’re lucky enough to have two old foam mattresses lying around, or get them second-hand, you’ll be able to start up without expenses.
Use a good and wide halter
When you start training, you need to equip your horse with a good, wide halter, and a sturdy lead rope that’s comfortable for you to hold, because training could take a while at first. The halter must be wide, because it distributes any pressure to the horse’s neck more evenly. Pressure can occur if the horse backs off, for example away from the equipment. Of course, you have to try to avoid pressure, but it can’t always be avoided, so I recommend a wide halter to minimize any pressure on the neck of the horse, which is very sensitive.
Start out slowly and take your time
Step 1 in ProPrio Training (out of 7 steps) is desensitizing your horse to the ProPrio equipment (no matter if you use your home-made equipment or the ‘real’ ProPrio equipment). I will get more into step 1 further on in this blog entry.
I can’t stress enough how vital this step is.
If the horse is not 100% comfortable with the equipment, there will be tension before you even start the exercises and so you won’t get the full benefit from the training. The training needs to relax, stretch, and strengthen the muscles with focus on the stabilizer muscles. That can only be achieved if the movers, the large muscle groups, are relaxed.
If the horse is nervous, insecure, or completely focused on something other than the training, the large mover muscles will be very active, and then the small stabilizer muscles won’t be trained efficiently.
In order for your horse to focus completely on the task, it’s a good idea to start the training at a time where it’s quiet around him. That means you should avoid training just before or around feeding time, when horses are being brought in from paddocks, if there’s a showjumping lesson going on, or similar things that can distract your horse.
How to use treats when training without turning your horse into a monster
I like to use treats when desensitizing because it motivates the horse a lot to take part in the training.
But I sometimes see horse owners who don’t want to, because their horse gets ’annoying’. Their horse gets so fixated on the treats that he’s exhausting to be around. I understand it, and I have experienced horses like that, but it’s 100% about your timing and the way you use treats in your training. With these horses, I only give treats when rewarding for something, I never give them ’just because’, and I use them with a clicker word. I explain more about this in the online ProPrio Training course.
Desensitizing is important and the first step of ProPrio Training
Desensitizing is step 1 in ProPrio Training and it’s the most important step, where you need to use all the time your horse needs.
Horses have individual differences.
Some horses step right onto the mattress immediately and think it’s fine, while others think it’s scary and barely dare to approach the equipment. Some horses jump over it, and others run across if you push them. I strongly discourage pressuring your horse to do anything. He might do as you ask, because he respects you, but I encourage you to introduce your horse to the equipment by using trust instead, because that’s the way you achieve most calm in your horse, both mentally and physically.
In a minute, I’ll show you how to go about doing that. As an example, I’ll use my new pony, who has had his share of negative experiences.
Axton and how and why I’m doing ProPrio Training with him
Recently, I got a 10-year-old New Forest pony. Some years ago, he got stuck in a stall gate with both hind legs, and some years later, his halter got caught on a hay feeder, which gave him Wobbler syndrome. So he’s very afraid of stepping on unknown surfaces, and generally very wary when it comes to new things. He used to compete in both dressage and showjumping, but after the accident, he’s scared to jump, and has since only been used for elementary level dressage.
He has a bad posture, and he moves his body in an incorrect way. There’s quite a long way to go to change his bad habits in movement and posture. But I believe it’s possible (otherwise he wouldn’t be with me).
Here you see Axton on the longe. Notice how he tenses up severely in his under-neck, drops his back, looks to the outside, almost paces instead of walks, and is off-beat, instead of lowering his neck, lifting his back, and rounding his body to follow the curve.
Since he arrived – about a month ago – I have slowly desensitized him to the ProPrio equipment, and I have recorded many of the sessions, which I’ll show you in this blog.
But first, 6 tips for desensitizing.
Get started with these 6 tips for the first step of your training
You can start by putting the mattress in the middle of the arena, so there’s plenty of space around it. That way, the horse feels less trapped.
1. Walk around the equipment, so the horse sees it from all angles and with both his eyes. This is crucial in order for the horse to get a proper impression of the equipment. Horses see differently with each eye, which I will explain more about in the online ProPrio course. The horse’s eye is unique, and we use that in several ways in ProPrio Training. Maybe you have experienced that your horse gets nervous about something that it’s seen a thousand times before? There’s a good reason for that, and you can improve your training a lot when you know why. It’s too long to cover in this blog, but in the online course, I will show you how to use the horse’s sight to release tensions and improve your training.
2. When the horse is okay to walk around the equipment, you can try stepping on it yourself. Keep the horse behind you or next to you, while you balance on the poles or the mattress. The horse will see the equipment move and hear the sound it makes when you step on it. Many horses can become a bit suspicious and afraid when they hear new or unfamiliar sounds, and this way you expose the horse to the sounds, while letting him experience that you’re not afraid when stepping on the equipment. The horse will be reassured that it is not dangerous when seeing that the owner is not afraid to step on it.
3. When the horse is comfortable with you stepping on the equipment, you can begin to encourage your horse to smell the equipment, and perhaps lightly touch it with his muzzle. The horse’s sense of smell is close to that of dogs, so very acute, which is something I cover in depth in the online ProPrio Training course. You can also use the sense of smell in other situations with your horse, because some scents can be calming for your horse. When the horse smells the equipment, he gets information about it, and it can help make him more comfortable around it. As soon as the horse looks at the equipment more closely on his own initiative, or maybe dares to stick his nose down to smell, I would reward the horse with a treat, and lead him away for a bit. That is a great reward for the horse, and then you can walk back and try it again. You continue this way until the horse is brave enough to touch the equipment with a hoof, paw at it, or maybe lick or bite the equipment. Praise the horse for all of it, even when he paws at it, because it’s okay and it teaches the horse a lot about the object, while he gets used to sounds, smells, tastes, etc.
4. When your horse is comfortable with all of the above, you can encourage the horse to step over a pole or onto the mattress – one step at a time and excessive praise for each step (horses love praise, just as you do, and I also feel happy when praising my horse for even the smallest thing). Don’t hold back with the treats while desensitizing, because the treat will also activate the horse’s parasympathetic nervous system, which is a dampener, and a system that kicks in when the horse needs to relax and digest, rest, etc. That is exactly what we’re looking for, because that’s when the large mover muscles relax, and we can put the small stabilizer muscles to work, which are so important for good core stability.
5. Gradually, you can get the first, second, third, and finally fourth leg on the mattress. Many horses don’t want to stand still on the mattress at first, so let him walk across, and teach him to move slower and slower across the mattress before stopping and resting with all four legs on the mattress.
6. When the horse can stand and rest with all four legs on the mattress, with a calm expression and lowered neck, you are ready for step 2 of ProPrio Training, which is relaxation exercises. After that, step 3, which is stretching, and so on until step 7, which will really challenge the horse’s ability to carry, balance, and coordinate himself, and ensure better performance without injury setbacks.
That sounds easy enough, right?
Yes, for some… but other horses are just more difficult to succeed with, and that’s the case with my New Forest pony. He’s just plain scared of it. Let me show you how we worked our way forward.
As mentioned, Axton was very afraid of the equipment. But even he has learned to step onto the mattress and stroll over soft poles. We just need to think outside the box.
Fortunately, he loves food, so the first week I had him, he was turned out in the arena and got to graze in the corners. In one, there was a mattress that he had to mind, but entirely without any pressure.
Later, I fed him all his meals in the middle of the mattress.
After that, I could put a lead rope on and guide him onto the mattress – one step at a time and with plenty of praise, even if he’d only paw at the mattress.
Finally, both front legs came up, and he was relaxed (and received plenty of praise and treats).
Axton finally got up the courage to carefully walk across one corner. One hind leg touched the mattress – he received a lot of praise for that because he’s so scared of anything touching his hind legs.
Here I am desensitizing him to the soft poles, and we can start all over again. Here he smells them (I have already walked over them several times, to let him see and experience that they are not dangerous).
Yay! It worked, and he takes his first step over, calm and composed.
And now at a walk over a small series of soft poles.
Learn how to improve your horse’s balance, strength, and coordination with ProPrio Training
You can see more of my progress with Axton in the online ProPrio Training course.
In the online ProPrio Training course, I go through all 7 steps of ProPrio Training, and I explain and show the exercises in all the steps so you can do them yourself both in hand, longeing, and when riding.
All my horses take part, and I can show you different issues resolved through ProPrio Training, with both young and old horses, and well-trained adult horses. I will show you how you can improve balance, strength, and coordination even in experienced, talented riding horses, competing horses, etc.